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Jan 20, 2014 12:32 PM EST

Universe's 'Cosmic Web' Visualized for First Time Thanks to Distant Quasar's 'Natural Flashlight'


Thanks to a distant quasar that has illuminated its surroundings, astronomers were able to see the first direct images of a cosmic web of "stuff" that is most likely dark matter.

Acting as a "cosmic flashlight," the quasar naturally illuminated a nearby gas cloud two million light years in length, BBC News reported. The glowing gas cloud reveals what appear to be strands of connected dark matter.

Cosmological theories have previously stated that such a cosmic web exists and the new research seems to be the first known physical evidence.

"This quasar is illuminating diffuse gas on scales well beyond any we've seen before, giving us the first picture of extended gas between galaxies," co-author J. Xavier Prochaska, UC Santa Cruz astronomy and astrophysics professor, said in a press release. "It provides a terrific insight into the overall structure of our universe."

According to BBC News, scientists have been developing the "standard model of cosmology" for years based on computer simulations of the structure of the universe. Such models suggest dark matter clusters together in strands to for a web as the universe grows.

For their study, published in the journal Nature, the researchers used data from the 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii. Scientists from UC Santa Cruz and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany collaborated for the project.

"We have studied other quasars this way without detecting such extended gas," the study's first author Sebastiano Cantalupo, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Cruz, said in the release. "The light from the quasar is like a flashlight beam, and in this case we were lucky that the flashlight is pointing toward the nebula and making the gas glow. We think this is part of a filament that may be even more extended than this, but we only see the part of the filament that is illuminated by the beamed emission from the quasar."

This particular quasar lies 10 billion light years away and hit the gas cloud just right to expose the dark matter filaments. A quasar is a galactic nucleus driven by a supermassive black hole and it also emits powerful radiation.

"The dark galaxies are much denser and smaller parts of the cosmic web. In this new image, we also see dark galaxies, in addition to the much more diffuse and extended nebula," Cantalupo said. "Some of this gas will fall into galaxies, but most of it will remain diffuse and never form stars."

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